How This Plane Earned A Dangerous Reputation: The DC-10 Story

Thanks to Squarespace for making this
video possible, more on that after this video. In just a few short years it would
go from being the pride of Airlines to a plane that some thought twice about
flying. [Television] The cargo door was found to have a basic fault in design. Before you got on the DC-10, were you worried about it? After the Chicago disaster though it’s the engine mountings that have come under the closest scrutiny. After a series of accidents, McDonnell Douglas is newest
jet was engulfed in an extraordinary wave of controversy. And while the DC-10
ultimately went on to be safe reliable even pioneering, the company that built
it never fully recovered from its missteps. the DC-10’s story begins in the early
1970s, at a pivotal time, when air travel was undergoing a revolution.
Long-distance flying, once reserved for the wealthy, opened up to the middle
class. And some of this had to do with aircraft design. A 1960s era airliner
like a long-range Boeing 707 had a single aisle, accommodating at most six
seats across. But a new generation of planes introduced for the 1970s added
another aisle allowing for many more seats. These new generation of airliners
were called wide-bodies and their increased capacity and new efficient fan
jet engines helped make air travel more affordable. Leading the way was Boeing’s
revolutionary 747. Introduced in 1970, the world’s first wide-body was doubled the
size of earlier airliners, and the jumbo jet quickly became an icon of the jet age. But
rival manufacturers raced to unveil wide-bodies of their own. In 1971
McDonnell Douglas introduced the DC-10. With a striking trijet configuration, it
promised improved fuel efficiency and lower maintenance costs. The medium to long range airliner could be configured to carry anywhere from 255 to
380 passengers. And with larger windows and a quiet spacious cabin, the DC-10 set
a new benchmark for passenger comfort. This was an entirely new kind of
airliner and McDonnell Douglas anticipated huge demand. But so did rival
Lockheed, a company also introducing a new trijet wide-body aimed at largely
the same market as the DC-10. The two companies were building pretty much the
same plane, but the L-1011 was Lockheed’s first ever jet airliner. McDonnell
Douglas on the other hand, had been building them since the late 1950s, so
they knew a thing or two about slinging jets. The DC-10’s wide-body design
incorporated many existing narrow-body technologies from earlier DC-8 and DC-9s.
Focusing on simplicity and reliability, McDonnell Douglas took a technologically
cautious in an era of rapid technological change.
And this helped accelerate the DC-10s development. On the other hand the L-1011s more ambitious and technically advanced design threw Lockheed’s
program into a tailspin of cost overruns and delays. The DC-10 beat the L-1011 to
the market, and it was less expensive. So McDonnell Douglas was soon out selling
its rival. [Television] the DC-10 is probably the quietest jetliner you’ve ever flown in. The
United DC-10 Friendship, a plane designed to please everybody. From a wide-body
Continental Airlines DC-10… but the DC-10 would quickly lose its shine. In just a
few short years the new jet would go from being the pride of Airlines, to a
plane that some people thought twice about flying. A series of accidents
during the 1970s, some of which were attributed to the plane’s design, engulfed
the DC-10 in an extraordinary wave of controversy. McDonnell Douglas found
itself facing accusations that it had rushed the planes development, leading to inadequate, even negligent design decisions. In 1979 an American Airlines
DC-10 was involved in America’s worst air disaster, but it’s the events after
the crash that really damaged the plane’s reputation. In an unprecedented
move, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended the DC-10 Type Certificate.
For five weeks U.S. registered DC-10s sat grounded on tarmacs, and foreign
DC-10s were banned from flying into U.S. airspace. The investigation focused on a
suspected flaw with the airplane’s engine mountings, but the sudden grounding
caused chaos at airports. [Television] How are you going to get there now? I have no idea, I just picked up my luggage downstairs in the mess, I don’t know where I’m going to go form here. Before you got on the DC-10, were you worried about it? Well, in Los Angeles where it was every news report had a big write-up of it–about the incident of the DC-10s
so it makes it is very much on edge. This delay is due to DC-10 operating restrictions. And passengers are requested to await further calls concerning this flight. A spokesman for the FAA and the United
States declared there was a distinct possibility that the model might never fly again operators and passengers around the
world are wondering whether the sight of a climbing DC-10 will be as common in
the future, or whether it will ever be seen again. Damage to the DC-10s
reputation was immediate and severe. Airlines stopped featuring the plane in
their advertisements, some quietly removed DC-10s from their mainline
routes and new orders for McDonnell Douglas wide-body dried up. But the 1979
American Airlines crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance
procedures and not directly to a design flaw in the DC-10. But that did little to
vindicate the plane’s reputation in the eyes of the public. Because memories were still fresh from an even deadlier incident five years earlier. In 1974 a
Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed outside of Paris when an improperly locked cargo
door blew open. The explosive depressurization triggered a
catastrophic chain of events which ultimately severed critical hydraulic
lines needed to control the jet. This was one of the world’s worst air disasters,
and it might have been avoidable because two years earlier the same catastrophic
chain of events almost brought down an American Airlines DC-10 just outside of
Detroit. Only the pilot’s skill and sheer luck that some hydraulic lines still
remained intact prevented disaster. But remarkably McDonnell Douglas knew about issues with the cargo door even before the plane entered service the company
had witnessed the cargo door blow up during its own ground testing. Not
surprisingly, McDonnell Douglas was criticized for how it handled the issue,
which involved negotiating their way out of an FAA issued air
worthiness directive. Instead McDonnell Douglas was allowed to handle the cargo
door flaw by issuing a Service Bulletin. But it was ultimately ignored by some
airlines. After the Turkish Airlines disaster McDonnell Douglas was hit with
multiple lawsuits from families of the victims, including up to that point the
largest lawsuit in history. And when it became clear they’d likely be held
liable, the cases were settled. But while the Turkish Airlines disaster was a PR
nightmare for McDonnell Douglas, it’s the 1979 Chicago disaster that really seemed
to crystallize the DC-10s reputation. The ensuing media frenzy, much of it driven
by speculation, was truly unprecedented. But there were other more pointed
criticisms, like accusations that the DC-10 s design had been compromised in a deliberate rush to beat the L-1011 to the market, resulting in an overall less
sophisticated plane. But what is certain is that it would take years for the
DC-10 s reputation to recover. And by the 1980s,McDonnell Douglas was facing even bigger challenges. The market had really only been big enough for one trijet and that ensured that neither would become a true commercial success Airlines now wanted more efficient twin-engine wide-bodies from Airbus and Boeing.
McDonnell Douglas was running out of cash to innovate, but that didn’t stop
the company from trying. [Television] With a new MD-11, McDonnell Douglas once again sets a
standard for commercial transport excellence and technological innovation.
McDonnell Douglas’s efforts to sell an improved version of its trijet in an era
when twin-engine jets were clearly the future signaled the beginning of the end
for the once legendary aircraft builder. But despite its troubled start the DC-10
would fly for over 40 years, serving with some of the world’s largest airlines. In
spite of tragic early accidents, including an infamous later incident in
Sioux City, statistically the DC-10 safety record would go on to be
comparable to other wide-bodies of the era, and much safer than earlier
generations of airliners. Noted for their strength, reliability, and ease of
maintenance, these iconic jets were workhorses for reputable airlines, and in
no small part the DC-10 helped open up air travel to the masses, forever
changing the modern airline industry. Ladies and gentlemen at this time we’d
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